Friday, January 8, 2010
Golden-eyes, "I've Got Eyes For You, Babe!"
Sometimes, the names of birds baffle me; the name may have no relationship to what I see about the bird. Sometimes this is because, as in the case of the Red-throated loons I've posted about in the past or the Red-shouldered hawk, it's because the bird isn't displayed in breeding plumage or it's just too young to have developed it. Either way, that makes it often hard for me to remember what a bird is when I see it. I have to look them up more frequently than I would like. I have six field guides within reach at all times and I use several online sources. The guide I use the most often, my daily bible, is The Sibley Guide To The Birds, by David Allen Sibley. Even with all of that at hand, it's hard to tell some things apart. In the photo below of the merganser with the Golden-eye, I can tell that it's a Red-breasted Merganser, but I can't say for sure if it's a breeding female or a non-breeding male. I'm going with breeding female because of the time of year. Sometimes with birding, you just have to go with your gut and make a commitment. Even though it seems early for them to be frolicking around all lovey-dovey, they are. The male merganser in the bottom photo is stretching his wings and making himself look important to the chicks and to the other males. The Common Golden-eye males below are not giving that poor hen a moments peace and she is clearly outnumbered. They are so aggressive about hens that this one is even looking over this female merganser pretty seriously! I think it's obvious with the males and the females why they are called 'Golden-eyes.' I never have a problem remembering that. There are two kinds of Golden-eyes, Common and Barrows. The reference to 'Common' is another point that is confusing to me. Why common? There's often nothing common about birds named as common. The Common Merganser has an all white breast and is a flashy, showy bird. So why not call it 'White-breasted' instead of 'Common?' And Common Golden-eye? You have to really be bitten by the birding bug, which I have been, to make the distinctions between a Common and a Barrows. I won't bore you with those details until the day I photograph a Barrows. And then, look out! Golden-eyes of either persuasion are small, diving ducks. I don't see them in our cove very often in the summer, but there are lots of them in small groups like this during the winter. They are one of the last ducks to migrate south in the fall and will spend time in open water as far north as they can find it. This makes them birds that a real 'Main-ah' can appreciate. Another 'Main-ah' appreciation factor is that they eat mollusks and crustaceans while here for the winter (insects are preferred fare while breeding), as do the other diving ducks I've posted about. Unlike those birds, they nest in tree cavities, either where branches have broken off or where large woodpeckers have drilled holes. Other birds will lay eggs in with Golden-eye broods ("brood parasitism"). So, a hen may hatch Golden-eye chicks that are not her own. They have been known to hatch chicks of European Starlings and even Tree Swallows! If a Common Golden-eye and a Red-breasted merganser mated (they don't), and they raised a Tree Swallow, what would it be called? Perhaps an "Uncommon Red-eyed Mergswall?" Now, that I could remember! Golden-eyes are heavily hunted and their breeding and wintering grounds are being degraded by development, but they are not endangered.